Shades of Meaning in Names of Colors
A recent newspaper article about the world’s ugliest color reminded me that writers of both fiction and nonfiction can be misguided in describing colors. The article referred to a study in which researchers identified the ugliest color: opaque couché.
This name (the official designation in the Pantone Matching System, a printing-industry codification of colors) is French for “nontransparent layer,” a translation just as unhelpful in helping people visualize the color, which has also been—ahem—colorfully described as baby poo green. Now, having read that description, who out there can’t picture opaque couché?
When describing colors, it’s best to associate them with known visual stimuli—objects (especially those from the natural world) known to have that color. Artists and fashionistas may know celadon from celery, but a layperson will likely draw a blank when trying to picture a sweater dyed celadon, while easily forming an image of a celery-colored one. Likewise, emerald or mantis will resonate better with readers than a vague term such as chartreuse or teal, or one with a place designation, such as “Paris green.”
Also, reconsider dated references. “Bottle green” was a useful descriptor in an era when glass containers of a distinctive green hue were ubiquitous, but the term will fall on blind eyes among younger readers. By contrast, “olive drab” is timeless, because of association with the fruit, though military combat uniforms, which used to be dyed in the color given that designation, are now generally earth toned.
Also, consider how evocative a term is. Bright green, harlequin, and neon green are very similar shades, but “bright green” is lifeless, and harlequin suggests a pattern rather than a hue, but “neon green” is a vivid descriptor. For a very specific demographic, “Nickelodeon-slime green” will evoke the color of the ooze known to people who watched game shows on the Nickelodeon cable and satellite network during the 1990s, but it won’t benefit other readers.
By all means, be as specific as possible in depicting colors, whether using a fictional character’s (or real-life person’s) choice of a fashion palette to provide insight into his or her personality or to convey an object’s or landscape’s appearance, but choose color descriptors carefully to enhance rather than obscure.